As a baby-boomer single mom with two boys in their early teens and parents in their 80s, I am acutely aware of the transportation demands that three active generations can place on a household. And I am mindful that — for my elderly parents and my soon-to-be-driving sons, alike — riding a bus or taking the subway is a much safer choice than getting behind the wheel of a car. For families with lower incomes, seniors who no longer drive and people with disabilities, there often is no choice: “getting there” means getting on public transportation.
It’s not surprising, then, that more and more people want to live near transit, especially baby-boomers like me, seniors and new U.S. residents — the population groups whose numbers are growing the fastest. As a result, the demand for specialized transportation services for people with disabilities is increasing exponentially.
Efforts abound to meet this demand. At the federal level alone, more than 62 human service programs administered by eight different federal departments work to meet the transportation needs of Americans. State and local governments, and community nonprofit organizations like the American Red Cross and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, do their best to fill in the transportation gaps for people with disabilities and people with low incomes, especially seniors.
So why is it still so hard to “get there” in so many communities across the nation?
More system collaboration needed
Ironically, much of the problem stems directly from the fact that so many programs and so many organizations are trying to help. Each program, each organization has its own set of rules about who is permitted to ride, where the van can go, how and when to reserve a ride, what the cost is and who will pay. The result is not only duplication of routes and services, but large gaps in service, too.
Sometimes these restrictions are the result of government laws and regulations that limit services to a particular population group or a particular destination, like healthcare. And sometimes, they result from practical considerations, like insurance coverage and cost reimbursement, that hamper attempts to join forces. But, often, the problem is simply that well-meaning, hard-working social service and transportation providers have simply never considered joining forces to maximize their impact. That’s where transportation coordination comes into play.
Last year, President Bush issued an executive order creating an interagency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility to tackle the coordination problems at the federal level. With 10 Cabinet-level members and Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta as the chairman, the council is making progress more quickly than ever. In its report to the President, the council describes a number of new tools it has created to help communities better coordinate transportation services, including a “one-stop” United We Ride Website that provides information about all of the federal programs that fund human service transportation. The report also shares “useful practices” that have proven effective in a variety of community settings. These tools were created to help communities succeed in bringing human transportation programs together under one umbrella, so services are easy for individuals to access and use.
An early progress report
Many communities across the United States are succeeding. In May, Secretary Mineta recognized five communities for their success in coordinating community transportation services. Those communities were Allegheny County, Pa.; Central New York; Dakota County, Minn.; Harrisburg, Ill.; and Montachusett, Mass.
Because of their exemplary county programs, people who might otherwise be stuck at home are on the move today. Working mothers in Allegheny County are getting to healthcare and parenting classes as a result of the county’s ACCESS program. Central New York seniors can “Call-A-Bus” to visit family members in long-term care facilities and run errands, thanks to the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority. In Minnesota, because of Dakota Area Resources and Transportation for Seniors (DARTS), more people have rides to work and are participating in the community. MART service, provided by the Montachusset Regional Transit Authority in Massachusetts, is “getting people there” by carrying seniors and people with disabilities to rehabilitation services and medical appointments.
These kinds of common sense transportation solutions, which are already standard operating procedure in many communities, are not always easy to implement. But maintaining personal independence and participating in civic affairs is more than just a laudable goal; it is an economic imperative. And the first step is “getting there.”
Dorn is administrator of the FTA.